On Liberty – John Stuart Mill

I’m trying something new in this space.  As part of my ongoing study of Meekonomics I read a lot of books on economics, politics, philosophy and religion.  I’ve been tweeting out a “quote of the day” from some of my reading for about 2 years now but I’ve  decided that those tweets were getting rather disjointed and many of my followers were just getting sound bites that didn’t make much sense unless you’ve been following my thought process all along.  So now instead of spreading them out I’ve decide to bunch all of the quotes together on the same day and write a blog post simultaneously.  That way you get to see not only what tweaked my interest but how and why it did so.  

The tweets below are in italics with my further comment and observation following in regular type.

My next series of tweets will be excepts from John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Liberty” published in 1859.  #jsmonliberty

As readers of the blog and book review published on Good Reads you will also be able to see my own impressions and observations.

The ‘people’ who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised. #jsmonliberty

 This first observation has been clear to me since a young age, even as I child I understood that those who make the rules don’t always have to follow them.  Self-government is an ideal and a myth that is fed to the lower classes by the upper classes but the actual levers of power are kept far away from those that are deemed too un-educated or otherwise in capable of any real control.  The function of the middle class is to act as a buffer between the upper classes and the lower classes.  It is the middle classes that are expect to buy into the myth of equality the most, for if they were to side with the lower classes, those in the upper class that exert control would soon be forced out of power.

The only purpose 4 which power can be exercised over any member of a civilized community, is 2 prevent harm 2 others.  #jsmonliberty

This speaks to the idea that certain things be controlled “for your own good”.  That has always sounded like a hollow argument to me.  Shouldn’t I be afforded the right to decided what is for my own good?  However, for my liberty to be curtailed for the good of the community is a completely different argument.  The question now becomes what constitutes “harm to others?”

The beliefs which we have most warrant 4 have no safeguard but a standing invitation 2 the world 2 prove them unfounded.  #jsmonliberty   

This has been the bases of scientific and philosophic argument for centuries.  If a belief cannot stand up to a constant onslaught of new thought and experimentation it isn’t worth holding.  Many of my atheist friends will no doubt stand up and cheer at this point, but not so fast, all beliefs must be open to this level of scrutiny and to date neither side of the atheism, deism debate has been able to definitively prove their position so we must continue to search for new and better explanations for the they the universe works until one belief is so proven to be unfounded.

The advantage truth has is that though it may be extinguished in the course of ages there will be found peple 2 rediscover it. #jsmonliberty

What is truth?  Although Mill stops short of a definitive definition here he does make it clear that truth is powerful enough to withstand persecution and re-emerge after times of suppression over the course of many years.  It has been said that the truth shall set you free, but it must first be set free.

It is not the minds of the heretics that are deteriorated most, but whose mental development is cramped by the fear of heresy. #jsmonliberty 

This is perhaps the best critique I have ever read against suppression of new and innovative thought.  It’s not that certain free thinkers are persecuted for their new and controversial ideas but that other, less confident and less developed free thinkers are cowed into suppressing their own thoughts for fear of persecution themselves.  Mill goes on to pose the hypothetical question, what other ideas and innovations have been lost to mankind forever simply as a result of the fear of being branded a heretic?

By Xianity I mean the maxims contained in the NT.  Not one Xtian in a 1000 guides his conduct by those laws. #jsmonliberty

This one hits close to home yet I have very little to say in refute.  The fact that Mill made this observation over 150 years ago and that it is still very true today, is a rebuke to every professing Christian from Rome to Los Angeles. Mill goes on to state that the true governing maxim of most of mankind is the custom of his nation, class or profession.  How far we have fallen from the original Heavenly Kingdom mindset of the early Christ-followers into an earthly Kingdom mindset dictated not by the maxims of the New Testament but by philosophies inherited from a much more recent time?

He who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice.  #jsmonliberty

Who say fiddler on the roof?  The opening number and indeed the entire musical is profound in both its comment on and rebuke of “tradition”.  Tradition is held up as some kind of eternal truth, a touch stone against the onslaught of progressive ideas that are damaging to community but at the same Tavia, the father of a traditional Jewish family admits he has no idea why the community as so many traditions. 

Tradition, or as Mill puts it, custom is of no use if it is not examined and questioned for its usefulness from time to time.  Without the right to regularly scrutinize custom it becomes an enemy of liberty.

It is impossible 2 do anything permanently hurtful 2 yourself, without mischief reaching 2 your near connexions and beyond.  #jsmonliberty    

This harkens back to my early observation of preventing harm to others and the distinction between doing things for your own good.  We must always bear in mind the effect our actions have on those around us.  Even if our actions harm only ourselves, those close to us will be injured by watching us go through unnecessary trials.  It is also possible that damage done to ourselves will have far reaching consequences that we cannot immediately see, such as permanent environmental damage done to land we own that does not become evident until long after it has been sold to another party.

The absorption of all ability into the governing body is fatal to the mental activity and progressiveness of the body itself.  #jsmonliberty

Although the governing body is capable of administering all function of society it is not a good idea to allow it to do so.  Personal responsibility and initiative are essential for any society to remain viable and progressive.  A passive acceptance that the government can and should run all facets of a functioning society leads to a lazy and dysfunctional community.  In fact I believe it contributes to the downfall of community and the rise of individualism and selfishness.  Government involvement should be limited to regulation for the safety and well being of it citizens and must walk a fine line between collective good and individual responsibility. 

 So ends my observations and conclusions from John Stuart Mill and On Liberty.  Feel free to comment on anything I have observed here, I will do my best to respond.  If you have any suggests for other books that will aid in my continuing research for The Meekonomics Project let me know. 

Next up,  Capital by Karl Marx.


1 Comment

  1. My favourites… “It is not the minds of the heretics that are deteriorated most, but whose mental development is cramped by the fear of heresy” and “By Xianity I mean the maxims contained in the NT. Not one Xtian in a 1000 guides his conduct by those laws.” Both truths understood profoundly by some and, well, viewed as heresy by a majority. Just starting “Attack upon Christendom” by Kierekgaard where I’m sure I’ll see these themes intertwined. Thanks for sharing these!

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